Just over one year ago, Yale faced a bold accusation.
According to 16 students and alumni who filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the University fostered a hostile sexual environment.
Four days after news broke that the OCR had opened an investigation, Vice President Joe Biden announced new guidelines that clarified the OCR’s expectations for Title IX compliance. As universities across the country began to reevaluate their sexual grievance procedures, Yale became the focal point of the nationwide discussion.
Yale administrators launched a flurry of new initiatives and accelerated existing projects, all designed to promote a safe campus environment. University President Richard Levin convened the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate, whose November report recommended that Yale expand the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education center (SHARE), increase administrator training in sexual misconduct issues and “reinvigorate” the role of Title IX coordinators. Meanwhile, the Yale College Dean’s Office unveiled a series of programs for undergraduates, including a revamped freshman orientation and mandatory leadership training for student organizations.
Still, Title IX complainants interviewed said the University’s efforts to improve Yale’s sexual culture have addressed only part of their concerns, asserting that Yale still lacks sufficiently strict disciplinary measures for perpetrators of sexual misconduct.
A majority of students interviewed said the Title IX complaint and the initiatives that followed have made the undergraduate population more attuned to issues of sexual misconduct. But not all agreed on whether the new programs have actually changed student behavior or on whether the push to maintain a positive sexual culture will continue after the OCR concludes its investigation.
“It’s the first year after Title IX, and the University has a very vested interest in making itself look good right now,” said Kate Orazem ’12, one of the Title IX complainants. “I hope that attitude will continue.”
ORIGINS OF THE COMPLAINT
According to four complainants interviewed, Yale had failed to respond quickly and strictly enough to cases of sexual misconduct for many years. But the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (DKE) incident — in which pledges chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” on Old Campus in October 2010 — was the “final straw” that convinced complainants that Yale needed a major change, Orazem said.
“ ‘No means yes, yes means anal’ became this kind of catchphrase for what was wrong with Yale,” she said. “I think stuff like that just made it easier to mobilize.”
Joseph Breen ’12, another Title IX complainant, said Alexandra Brodsky ’12, Hannah Zeavin ’12 and Presca Ahn ’10 were among the first complainants to begin discussions that eventually led to the complaint, adding that the trio “did the most work” in putting together the complaint and handling media attention.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1804″ ]
When considering what action to take, complainants looked back at a controversy in 2008 when Zeta Psi fraternity members were photographed holding a “We Love Yale Sluts” sign in front of the Women’s Center, an incident that led the then-Women’s Center board to consider suing the fraternity. Though board members did not ultimately press charges, Orazem said the controversy provided a precedent for considering legal action against Yale that helped pave the way for the complainants to pursue their own legal remedies.
Brodsky said discussion about filing a formal complaint started around the 2010-’11 winter break, when Zeavin began consulting Harvard Law School professor Diane Rosenfeld for legal advice. Orazem said Rosenfeld encouraged the complainants to pursue legal action. (Rosenfeld did not return repeated requests for comment.)
Over the next few months, Brodsky said she worked with other early Title IX complainants to reach out to other students and alumni who they thought would be interested in joining the effort.
Breen, who said he was asked to join by Brodsky in early 2011, said the complainants reached out to a diverse range of people they thought would be interested in the initiative. He said his support was a “sort of recognition” that sexual misconduct issues applied to all members of the Yale community — not just women.
“[The complainants] were people who were interested in gender and interested in issues about sexual violence, but we were not necessarily with each other all the time or in subsets,” Orazem said. “We all had a little piece of what we thought was going on, but we had never really pooled our knowledge and saw how systemic this stuff was.”
The complaint includes testimonies from students unsatisfied with the University’s response to sexual misconduct, Brodsky said, adding that administrators’ response to the DKE controversy was only a small part of the complaint’s grievances against Yale.
Rosenfeld and New Haven-based lawyer Anne Catherine Savage ultimately helped format the complaints’ individual testimonies into a formal legal document.
Still, not all students and alumni who thought Yale needed to improve its sexual climate wanted to pursue legal action. Brodsky said some students opposed her decision to contribute to the complaint, questioning her “Yale loyalty.”
One student, who declined to sign the complaint and wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the controversy, said she worried that the complaint would divide the Yale community and run counter to the efforts already being made to promote dialogue and cooperation following the DKE incident.
Brodsky said the early complainants did not ask “much more than 16” students and alumni to contribute to the complaint. Eventually, the 16 complainants decided to proceed and file the complaint, a decision that launched Yale into the national spotlight.
The OCR announced its Title IX investigation just two weeks before administrators and students welcomed admitted students to campus on April 13 for Bulldog Days.
Breen said the timing of the investigation’s announcement was “unfortunate” and “not planned at all.” The complainants ended up receiving “a lot of flack for seemingly trying to sabotage Bulldog Days,” he said, even though they had submitted their complaint at least a month before the event and did not know when the investigation would formally begin.
Levin said he thinks the Title IX controversy may have deterred some admitted women from attending Yale.
“I think we did see a small impact of publicity last spring, in the sense that we had a slightly diminished yield from admitted women,” he said. “On the other hand, we saw a huge surge in admissions applications this year.”
The class of 2015 is 49 percent female — a 3 percent decrease from the freshman class of 2014.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1802″ ]
Still, four college counselors and admission officers interviewed said they do not think the Title IX complaint has significantly affected Yale’s public image or admissions statistics.
David Petersam, a counselor at Admissions Consultant, Inc., said he has not noticed any change in Yale’s attractiveness as an institution among high school students. He said he thinks students who are interested in Yale will still apply because of the University’s national prestige and academic resources.
Three of nine college freshmen who were accepted to Yale but chose not to attend said they were concerned by the Title IX complaint and DKE incident, but all said the complaint ultimately did not influence their college decisions.
C.C. Gong, a freshman at Harvard who was accepted to Yale, said she remembered talking to a fellow prospective student at the University of California, Berkeley’s admitted students weekend last spring when a news broadcaster on the television behind her began discussing the Title IX and DKE controversies at Yale.
“Right when I said I was thinking about going to Yale, somebody pointed to the [television] and said, ‘Wait, you want to go to that school? Isn’t it sexist?’ ” she said.
Though Gong said she was “kind of shocked about what had happened,” she said the complaint did not affect her college decision because she spoke with Yale students who reassured her that the issue was “not something that defines Yale.” She said she ended up choosing Harvard because of family reasons and “being in Boston.”
Elliot Wilson, another freshman at Harvard who was accepted to Yale, said in an April 2 email that he had talked about Yale’s alleged Title IX violations and the DKE controversy with his Bulldog Days hosts, adding that he is still “bothered by defenses of this sort of behavior” that he has read on comment boards. Though Wilson said the controversy did not dissuade him from attending Yale, he said the negative perceptions of Yale regarding sexual misconduct issues “certainly makes him uncomfortable and angry.”
Nancy Cantalupo, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University who has been working on sexual misconduct issues for over 15 years, said she thinks students understand that sexual misconduct is an issue that can affect all universities. But she said questions concerning Yale’s public image are especially important to the University’s alumni since they feel a sense of “belonging” to Yale and that “Yale is their school.”
Levin said he received “a lot” of questions from alumni when the OCR’s investigation began, but added that he has had “virtually no conversation” with alumni on the matter since the Advisory Committee report was released.
Still, Mu Young Lee ’92, president of the Yale Club of Silicon Valley, said the complaint “definitely” remains on the minds of many alumni. During an alumni event in San Francisco last month, Lee said several alumni asked Levin about the ongoing Title IX investigation and seemed satisfied with Levin’s “candid” response.
Maria Lopez-Bresnahan ’78, president of the Yale Alumni Association of Boston, said she thinks the investigation has been a “source of embarrassment and disappointment for alumni.”
“We kind of think of Yale as being a place that’s a little bit more enlightened even if it does include kids from 18 to 22,” Lopez-Bresnahan said. “And so [the controversy] was disappointing. I was a little bit disgusted because obviously this is something we had hoped wouldn’t occur at Yale.”
Lopez-Bresnahan said she thinks it is a “shame” that administrators have needed to expend resources and energy into addressing inappropriate behavior among students. She added that though she will not stop donating to the University, she plans to guide future donations more carefully and ensure that her contributions end up in specific areas she would like to support.
Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said in a Sunday email that she has not received any feedback — either verbally or through donation patterns — from alumni donors about the Title IX controversy.
Alternatively, Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said he thinks the University’s response to the Title IX controversy may have actually enhanced Yale’s reputation since he said administrators have responded to the challenge rather than “run away” from the controversy.
Despite the wave of new initiatives and policy changes over the past year, all four Title IX complainants interviewed said the University still has much room to improve, emphasizing the need for stricter disciplinary consequences for sexual misconduct offenders.
“All these workshops and counselor positions and committees and pamphlets are lovely, but they aren’t worth a damn if Yale doesn’t also practice deterrence,” Ahn said in March email. “Yale needs to stop making new bureaucracy; instead, it needs to walk the walk. It needs to discipline students who engage in hate speech, and it needs to expel students who assault other students.”
Disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year ranged from a “written reprimand” and counseling to a one-semester suspension, according to the University’s first biannual report on sexual misconduct released in January by Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1801″ ]
Ahn added that she thinks the “new bureaucratic activity” shifts responsibility from the “failure” of University policies and instead focuses attention on other “culprits, the so-called sexual climate being the big favorite.”
Brodsky said she has not yet noticed a “real shift in the University’s philosophy of approaching sexual violence,” adding that administrators still need to send a stronger message by considering expelling students convicted of sexual misconduct. Right now, she said, students “can assault someone and get off with a talking to.”
“At a certain point, if we don’t want rapists on this campus, we need to kick them out of here,” Brodsky said.
But Levin said he disagrees with concerns about the University’s disciplinary procedures for sexual assault, citing the newly established University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) — a centralized organization intended to streamline sexual misconduct cases — as an example of an “extremely sensitive and thoughtful new mechanism.”
In addition, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd ’90 said in a Thursday email that it is “not enough to discipline those who are violent or abusive” — Yale must continue to establish a community that makes all students feel safe. She added that she thinks administrators are achieving meaningful progress by focusing on “cultural change,” which she called the “ultimate” prevention and intervention strategy.
Lake said most universities’ disciplinary systems give administrators a wide range of discretion in determining appropriate student punishment. He said he thinks Yale’s system is relatively standard and that administrators tend to advocate for stricter penalties “in the abstract” but ultimately practice more lenient punishment in reality.
Lake added that especially severe punishment systems can sometimes “backfire” since administrators can feel more “squeamish” about finding culpability.
“If the punishment gets too strict, juries don’t convict,” he said.
Still, Title IX complainants said the initiatives launched over the past year aimed at improving the University’s sexual climate represent steps in the right direction.
Administrators interviewed said many of the recent policy changes were not implemented in direct response to the Title IX complaint but are instead part of ongoing efforts to improve Yale’s sexual climate.
“I think the combination of incidents we had last year, plus the complaint, plus an increase in scrutiny of these matters by the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Education all played a role in our thinking that we need to be responsive and develop a stronger set of policies and programs,” Levin said. “The complaint was a factor in all but not exclusively responsible for any.”
While the Advisory Committee was announced in response to the Title IX investigation, other programs had already been in the works.
A fall 2010 report commissioned by Provost Peter Salovey’s office recommended that administrators establish the UWC, which began operating last July.
In addition, the Yale College Dean’s Office took steps to address the DKE incident before the Title IX complaint was filed, forming the Committee on Hazing and Initiations — which led to the new leadership training sessions held in January — and establishing the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention — which prompted changes to freshman orientation.
Boyd said she has “always understood the Title IX complaint as a symptom of the changes underway at Yale.” A few changes, including the expanded role of the Title IX coordinators, can be traced to OCR’s Title IX clarifications rather than the complaint itself, she said. The University’s decision to lower the burden of proof necessary to find someone in violation of sexual misconduct regulations also came in response to OCR’s new guidelines.
Regardless of the origins of each new initiative, administrators said their underlying goal has been to encourage a positive and safe sexual environment on campus.
AN EVOLVING CULTURE
All five freshman counselors and a majority of 15 other seniors interviewed said the complaint and the new initiatives that followed have made undergraduates more aware of sexual misconduct issues, but they expressed mixed reactions about whether this awareness has translated into changes in student behavior.
Adam Weiner ’12, a freshman counselor in Silliman College, said he has “absolutely” noticed a shift in campus discussions over the past year, a change he said is especially noticeable when he visits his hometown in California.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1803″ ]
“At home, people make jokes that would make women feel uncomfortable, [and] it’s just not something I even think to do anymore,” Weiner said. “Things have totally changed. You just don’t joke about it anymore.”
Alex Birks ’12, former president of DKE, told the News in a December email that his fraternity has experienced an “attitude adjustment” since their controversial chants in October 2010. He added that the chanting incident encouraged his fraternity to scrutinize its traditional rush and pledge processes as well as members’ individual daily behavior.
But Dan O’Connor ’12 said he thinks many people have ended up treating Title IX as a “bit of a joke” following the “explosion of conversation” on the issue. He said the attention directed toward the complaint has encouraged productive discussion among some students, but has become “more or less a punchline” for others. He said he thinks most students on campus are aware of the term “Title IX” but do not know much about the complaint itself.
O’Connor added that he thinks the complaint has caused “anger” among some male students who believe the negative media attention has “cast aspersions” on Yale’s male population as a whole.
Jamey Silveira ’13, president of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, said he has not noticed any major cultural changes in fraternity life even though he said the complaint brought sexual misconduct issues to the “forefront of our collective Yale conscience.”
“The complaint has put a spotlight on this issue and encouraged a lot of discussion and made people consider whether this is a real problem in our culture,” Silveira said. “I don’t know if it’s reached a point where it’s really effecting any tangible change, but it’s on people’s minds, which in some sense might be the first step.”
Soon, the OCR will conclude its investigation into Yale’s sexual climate, and national media scrutiny on the University will fade.
Orazem said she thinks the intense media attention has created a strong incentive for the University to make visible changes, and she hopes administrators’ focus on improving the campus’ sexual culture will continue even after the University is no longer in the public eye.
“I’m worried that as Title IX drops further and further into the past, so will the University’s commitment,” she said.
A 1980 Title IX case against the University, Alexander v. Yale, led to changes at Yale and other universities across the country whose effects are still felt today. Though the plaintiffs did not win their suit, the case set the precedent for sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination. Ann Olivarius ’77 LAW ’86 SOM ’86, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a speech at Sex Week 2012 in February that “literally hundreds of institutions” established sexual grievance procedures within five years after the case closed. Yale formed its own grievance procedures in 1980.
“It was the start of what became a mighty river of law, and the impact that it had in changing campus culture and attitudes toward sexual harassment more generally is undeniable,” she said in her speech.
Brodsky said the complainants aimed to “build on the foundation” set by Alexander v. Yale to encourage administrators to make Yale’s campus safer.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said in a Tuesday email that she expects the University’s changes over the past year to have a permanent effect on Yale, citing the appointment of Spangler to oversee the University’s Title IX compliance, the initiatives by the Dean’s Office to enhance undergraduate sexual education efforts and the expansion of SHARE’s website to clarify Yale’s sexual assault resources.
“The changes are lasting,” she said. “I hope … no one will ever again say that the resources at Yale are confusing.”
Courtney Fukuda ’12 said administrators now have a strong incentive to avoid another Title IX investigation to prevent another wave of negative media scrutiny. Nico Barawid ’12, a freshman counselor in Silliman College, also said he expects the University’s recent initiatives to last since they have become “institutionalized” in programs such as freshman orientation.
In addition, Weiner said he thinks the University’s sexual environment will improve in the coming years as incoming freshmen go through the revamped orientation workshops.
Levin said Yale is “very committed” to creating a campus free from sexual misconduct, and he does not expect this commitment to diminish after media attention subsides.
“Do I think it will fade?” Ilan Ben-Meir ’13 said of the Title IX complaint’s effect on the University. “It depends on how willing people are to let it.”
Clarification: April 11
An earlier version of this article paraphrased Joseph Breen ’12 as saying that Alexandra Brodsky ’12, Hannah Zeavin ’12 and Presca Ahn ’10 were the first individuals to begin discussions that eventually led to the Title IX complaint. In fact, the three were just among the early group of complainants to have those discussions.